Āyurveda as a Holistic Healing System

Āyurveda originates from India and dates back to the Vedic times, at least 5000 years ago.  Āyur means life, health, and/or longevity and veda means knowledge or wisdom – so Āyurveda means the knowledge of life/longevity.  “It is an art of daily living that … offers a profound understanding of each person’s unique  body, mind, and consciousness, which is the foundation of health and happiness”.1

The goal of Āyurveda according to the ancient text Charaka Samhita is:

“To bring into balance and health an unhealthy person, and to maintain the health of a healthy person.”

Ultimately, Ayurveda is an art of living in harmony with the natural world, to be practiced moment to moment.

8 Branches of Ayurveda Medicine

  1. Kayachikitsa (Internal Medicine)
  2. Shalakya Tantra (Ear, Nose, and Throat)
  3. Bhuta Vidya (Psychiatry)
  4. Vishagara-vairodh Tantra (Toxicology)
  5. Vajikarana (fertility and conception)
  6. Kaumara Bhritya (gynecology and pediatrics)
  7. Shalya Tantra (surgery)
  8. Rasayana (rejuvenation and longevity)

The 5 Mahabhutas (Elements)

According to Ayurveda there are 5 elements, from the subtle to the gross:

  1. Akasha  – space, devoid of matter,
  2. Vayu – air, gaseous, movement, air (no solid part)
  3. Tejas  – fire, luminosity, combustion, heat.
  4. Ap  – Liquid, water
  5. Prithvi  – solid, earth

The 3 Doshas

The 5 elements are grouped into 3 doshas, basic types of energy or functional principles that are present in everybody (and everything).  When the doshas go out of balance, they affect the dhatus (bodily tissues) and lead to disease.  There are 10 pairs of 10 opposites, called gunas or attributes.


Vata is the energy of movement and consists of the elements Vayu (air) and Akasha (space). The gunas (attributes) of vata are ruksha (dry), laghu (light), shita (cold), khara (rough), sukshma (subtle), chala (mobile), and vishada (clear).  In the body, vata governs breathing, blinking, muscle and tissue movement, heart pulsation, etc.  When vata is in balance, it promotes creativity and flexibility.  When out of balance, vata produces fear, anxiety, and abnormal movements.   Late autumn/early winter is the vata season.


Pitta is the energy of transformation and consists of the elements Tejas (fire) and Ap (liquid), although some traditions say that Pitta only consists of Tejas (fire).  The gunas (attributes) of pitta are ushna (hot), tikshna (sharp), laghu (light), drava (liquid), chala (mobile), and snighda (oily).  In the body, pitta is the body’s metabolic system and governs digestion, absorption, assimilation, nutrition, metabolism, and body temperature.  In balance, pitta promotes understanding and intelligence.  Out of balance, pitta increases anger, hatred, jealousy, and inflammation disorders.  Summer is the pitta season.


Kapha is the energy of lubrication and structure consists of the elements Prithvi (earth) and Ap (liquid).  The gunas (attributes) of kapha are guru (heavy), manda (slow/dull), shita (cold), snighda (oily), drava (liquid), shlakshna (slimy), sandra (dense), mrudu (soft), sthira (static), picchila (sticky), and sthula (gross).  In the body, Kapha provides the glue or cohesion that holds the cells together, supplies the water for all bodily parts and systems, and lubricates joints, and moisturizes the skin.  In balance, kapha is expressed as love, calmness, and forgiveness.  Out of balance, kapha leads to attachment, greed, possessiveness, and congestive disorders.  Spring is the kapha season.

There are also 5 subdoshas for each dosha, but that is too detailed for this paper.

Agni and Ama

Agni is the fire element (pitta) and it governs transformations.  So the primary function of agni is the digestion, absorption, assimilation, and transformation of food into energy.  It also governs digesting emotional experiences too.  Agni is closely related to pitta.  When the agni is low, it can result in fatigue and ama.

Ama is a toxic sticky substance resulted from undigested food.  When there is ama in the body, it goes into the tissues and blocks the flow of the body channels (Srotansi, too much to discuss in this paper).  Ama is the root cause of many diseases.  A practitioner can detect ama in the body by examining the tongue, and finding a thick coat.  If the color of the coating is white – it indicates kapha ama.  If the color of the coating is yellow, it indicates pitta ama.  If the color of the coating is gray, it indicates vata ama.  There are specific treatments for the different kinds of ama.

The 6 Tastes

According to Ayurveda there are 6 tastes, all of which affect the doshas.  This is an important concept to understand, so one can understand which herbs and foods are balancing to one’s constitutions and imbalance.

  1. Madhura (Sweet), which consists of the prithvi (earth) and ap (water) elements, increases Kapha, decreases Vita and Pitta.  Examples are starches such as rice and other grains, and obvious sweets such as dates, raisins, etc.  Sweet tastes moisten, calm the psyche, and build the tissues.
  2. Amla (Sour), which consists of the prithvi (earth) and tejas (fire) elements, increases Kapha & Pitta, decreases Vata.  Examples are acidic foods such as citrus fruits and yogurt.  Sour tastes stimulate appetite and digestion.
  3. Lavan (Salty), which consists of the ap (water) and tejas (fire) elements, increases Kapha & Pitta, decreases Vata.  Salty foods warm the body, retain moisture, and regulate liquid factor.
  4. Tikta (Pungent), which consists of the vayu (air) and tejas (fire) elements, – increases Pitta & Vata, decreases Kapha.  Examples are spicy things like ginger, cayenne, cinnamon, peppers, etc.   Pungent tastes increase metabolism and agni (digestive fire) and destroys ama (toxins).
  5. Kasaya (Astingent), which consists of the air and akasha (space) elements, increases vata and decreases pitta and kapha.  Examples are turmeric, green grapes, and some unripe fruits.  Astringent tastes are cool, drawing, and drying, and halts movement.
  6. Katu (Bitter), which consists of the vayu (air) and prithvi (earth) elements, increases vata and decreases pitta and kapha?  Examples are chocolate and beer, neem, and goldenseal.  Bitter tastes are anti-infective and similar to astringent but do not halt movement.

Dhatus (Tissues)

According to Ayurveda there are 7 dhatus – bodily tissues – in the body:

  1. Rasa – plasma
  2. Rakta – red blood cells
  3. Mamsa – muscle
  4. Meda – adipose tissue /fat
  5. Ashti – bones and cartilage
  6. Majja – marrow, nerve tissues, and connective tissue
  7. Artava & Shukra – female & male reproductive tissues

The nourishment of the tissues occurs in stages, starting from the digested food.  As one dhatu receives the nutrients, it processes and produces two results – one is the mature, fully formed tissue, and the other is the raw, immature form of nutrition for the next level of tissue.  It takes 5 days for each dhatu to transform the nutrients, and it takes 35 days in all to transform food into fully formed artava or shukra (reproductive tissue).

Prikriti and Vikriti

Prikriti is the combination and proportions of vata, pitta, and kapha in a person.  It is determined by genetics and is set at conception.  It is simply the unique mind-body makeup and functional habits of a person.  The prikriti is written with rankings for each dosha, like this: V2 P1 K3.  This means that the person is predominately kapha, with vata secondary and a small amount a pitta.  The prikriti, as one’s genetic code, usually does not change during one’s lifetime.  However, with meditation and spiritual practices, the manas prikriti (prikriti of the mind) may change.

It is possible to have all three doshas equal (tri-doshic), but usually a person will have one or two doshas predominant.  Not every person with the same ratio of doshas will be the same, because the qualities express themselves in different ways.  For example, one vata person may be more cold while another one may be more dry.

Vikriti is the present state of the three doshas.  It literally means “false”.  If the vikriti (present state) is the same as the prikriti (genetic constitution), then the person is balanced and healthy.

An Ayurveda practitioner will determine the prakriti and vikriti of a patient by asking questions about the life history (food habits, digestion & elimination, etc.), examining the body’s appearance, taking the pulse, examining the tongue, etc.  The goal of Ayurvedic treatment is to bring the vikriti (false) back into balance with the person’s prikriti (genetic constitution).

Ayurveda Treatments & Herbal Formulations

Ayurveda does not only treat the disease, it also treats the person who has the disease.  Ayurveda treatments are antagonistic to disease or condition, and antagonistic to imbalanced dosha(s).

Similar to Chinese medicine where they have the King, Queen, Minister, etc. herbs as part of the formulation, Ayurveda has a similar concept, to have different herbs to support the main herbs and to assist in digestion, rejuvenation, etc.  Note, that one herb may provide several functions.  I will give examples of these in the case study below.

  1. Leader/Primary herb(s) do the primary actions for the imbalance.
  2. Assistant herb(s) assist the primary herb(s) in a complementary role.
  3. Digestive / Assimilating herb(s) help the body digest the herbal formula.
  4. Cleansing or Detoxing herb(s) bring the toxics out of the body.
  5. Rejuvenative / Tonic herb(s) rebuild the body after the main actions have occurred.

Case Study

Man in early twenties, student in psychology and dance.  Alcoholic and abusive father.  Dark curly hair.  Persistent gas, often low but fluctuating energy level, anxiety, worry, and depression.  Always feels cold, especially hands and feet.  Constipation alternates with diarrhea.  Craves sugar, but know it isn’t good for him.  Disturbed sleep pattern since childhood; alternately oversleeps or sleeps little due to nightmares where he feels that the cells of his body are being torn apart or he is being pursued.

This person’s prikriti (constitution) appears to be V2.5 P1.5 V1, predominantly Vata, which is the dosha of movement.  His vikriti (imbalance) is V3.5 P1.5 V1, which is a vata imbalance, he has an excess of vata which is manifested in his gas, unstable digestion, and disturbed sleep pattern.

Some possible treatments would be:

  1. Practice pranayamas to help calm the mind
  2. Eat more vata pacifying, grounding foods like root vegetables, more oils & ghee
  3. Nightly abhyanga (ayurvedic massage) with medicated sesame oil, with herbs such as brahmi, bala, ashwangandha.
  4. Sleep formula at night to help with sleep, this consists of milk (cow’s or almond milk) with 3 parts ashwagandha, 1 part cardamon, 1 part nutmeg
  5. Herbal formula, 1 tsp to be taken twice a day on empty stomach, taken with honey or ghee.  (p= parts)
    • 10p Brahmi – nervous system, increases sattwa in the mind
    • 4p Bala – nervous system, anxiety
    • 4p Shankapushpi – nervous system
    • 4p Triphala – for stabilize elimination, laxative and cleansing
    • 2p Ashwagandha – vata rejuvenative, helps with sleep
    • 2p Tulsi calming, nerves
    • 2p Chitrak for coldness, and cold hands and feet
    • 2p Licorise Root – low energy
    • 2p Trikatu (3 peppers) stimulates digestion, depression
    • 1p Valarian – for insomnia
    • 1p Dashmoola – roots of ten herbs, extremely grounding
    • 1p Cinnamon – stimulator
    • 1p Cumin – digestant
    • 1p Fennel – digestant


This concludes my short paper on Ayurveda.  Ayurveda is so vast and there is so much to write that it was difficult to determine what to actually write about!


  1. Textbook of Ayurveda by Vasant Lad, M.A.Sc.  The Ayurvedic Press
  2. The Ancient Ayurvedic Writings by Vasant Lad


  1. Rocky Mountain Institute of Yoga and Ayurveda (RMIYA) Course Notes for Ayurvedic Medicine I and II Courses
  2. National Association of Medical Ayurveda (NAMA) Conference 2007 session notes